“Once the fire gets started, it just keeps going on its own, without additional insult. “
—Robert Cantu, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Boston University, in Head Games
“Are you ready? Are you scared?” As snowboarder Jack Mitrani rides the chair lift to the top the mountain at Aspen in December 2009, he leans into the camera to emphasize the rush he’s feeling. He’s sitting next to best friend Kevin Pearce. They’re wearing ski caps and goggles, and once they drop off the lift, the camera in The Crash Reel follows behind. They ski and flip and joke, pausing for moments of jaunty self-evaluation. They’re on the road to Vancouver, they nod and smile, meaning the Olympics in 2010. Kevin squints against the sun: “I don’t know if it’s the correct road, but….”
The film cuts here to the next stop on that road, Park City, the place where Pearce, a popular X Games medalist and world champion, suffers a bad fall and traumatic brain injury. The consequences of that accident become the central focus of The Crash Reel, currently screening on HBO, as Pearce and his family cope with his recovery and also his desire to get back on his snowboard. That desire is understandable, as the film shows him and other boarders in action, emphasizing that their stunts are thrilling—for observers, certainly, but also for the athletes. Repeated scenes show soaring, hurtling bodies and boards, white snow and brilliant blue sky, cheering crowds. As Kevin comes back—over long months of rehab and extraordinary resolve—he’s determined to get back, to feel again the rush of competitive snowboarding. As he puts it to his incredibly supportive, increasingly worried family, “It’s unexplainable for me to say the amount that snowboarding does for me.”
As the film follows Pearce’s recovery from what snowboarder Scotty Lago calls “the perfect storm of falls; it couldn’t have been any worse,” it also provides layers of experience, not just Kevin’s, but also those of his parents, Simon and Pia, his brothers, Adam (who quits his job to help Kevin) and David (a Special Olympics skier with Down’s Syndrome), friends, and also his longtime rival, Shaun White. At first, the dire effects, illustrated in photos of Pearce in hospital, broken and bruised, with tubes everywhere. “There was very little change,” Adam observes of the first months, “and then there was like this amazing ladder of improvements.” Pearce is soon mobile and aggressively rehabbing, re-learning how to walk and speak and eat, his family gathered round him to help at every step.
Encouraged by his own remarkable progress, Pearce does not see himself as others do, and the film offers remarkable access to a difficult process, discussions of possibilities and risks in doctors’ offices and around the family’s dinner table. Pearce describes his symptoms, the changes in memory, vision, and physical ability, his feelings of “confusion, fatigue, impulsitivity.” At first he doesn’t see himself in other brain injury sufferers, as when he and his mother visit with a young man, Grant, in a wheelchair, unable to speak clearly. He loves snowboarding, Pearce hears. And after they speak briefly, Pearce encouraging him to press on to recovery, he turns to Pia and says, ” I wasn’t like that, I wasn’t like that.”
The film cuts to another scene, the point clear enough, even if Pearce doesn’t see it yet. He is exceptional and all cases are different, but they’re also intricately related, revealing repetitions and patterns, helping to shape treatments and also realistic objectives. Pearce’s parents caution him to rethink his plan to snowboard again, he argues with them, still in love with the old self now lost: “How much am I going to have to take this advice?” he asks, “I feel like there’s no trust in this family.” Knowing that another head injury might be catastrophic, Simon sees it as a matter of risk, not trust. “Is it fair to your mother and your family to be put in the position of taking care of you the rest of your life?”
The idea of risk is crucial and complicated: as Kevin realizes that his decision regarding his future will never be an individual one, that he has responsibilities as well as ambitions and hopes, the film brings in another layer of risk and responsibility, concerning the sport of snowboarding, and other extreme sports, though interviews with other athletes and other survivors of traumatic brain injuries. More than one athlete notes that accidents are inevitable in heir business (“Shit happens”), and they feel willing to take the risk. Shaun White, whose own dominance in snowboarding was seriously challenged by Pearce, says that this accident “puts this weird, strange light on the sport, with people questioning the safety of the sport.”
The questions are compelling. Some have to do with individual stakes and aspirations, the rewards of prize money and endorsement contracts, fame and perpetual celebration. Others have to do with extreme sports’ exploitative business and structure, how athletes are uninsured and at the same time pushed to conjure bigger, more sensational and more dangerous tricks. “It’s very hard to get out of it, you get caught up in it, ” says Simon, a professional glassblower. “Then there’s the expectations, and all the sponsors, and everybody’s expecting you to do better and better and more and more, and so you push the limits.” The camera cuts to close-ups of his wife and children as he speaks, heir faces pensive. “The only way to be successful in that sport is to push the limit. Everybody’s having bad falls, and it’s just luck whether you have what happened to Kevin or you don’t.”
“You have what happened to Kevin or you don’t.” Simon’s analysis here is impassioned and deeply personal, as he voices a frustration familiar to many parents and athletes: the accident is that, an accident, but the risk is inherent and growing within the sport. Positioning his family’s experience in relation to extreme sports as industry, and not only to his or his family’s “feelings,” Simon here articulates the political and cultural elements of the business. This broader frame exposes that the risks are not only personal, and neither are the responsibilities.